America Discovers Central Asia

Charles William Maynes. Foreign Affairs. Volume 82, Issue 2. March/April 2003.

Long Time, No See

Prior to September 11, 2001, the Central Asian states of the former Soviet Union—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—might as well have been on the other side of the moon as far as U.S. policy was concerned. They were and are everything the United States is not: landlocked, poor, peripheral, fearful, defenseless, Muslim, and undemocratic. Today, however, they are high on the U.S. foreign policy agenda, and America once again finds itself engaged militarily in an area about which its key officials know little. Almost none speak the critical languages of Central Asia; all too few have relevant experience there.

Curiously, as different and remote as the United States and the Central Asian countries are from one another, their fates have intersected at least twice before. During the U.S. Civil War, the North’s tight trade blockade on the South had an unexpected consequence for Russian textile manufacturers: they suddenly found that they could no longer buy American cotton for their rapidly expanding plants. On learning of their plight, expansion-minded Russian officials developed a new rationale for pushing the borders of their empire south: conquering Central Asia, where cotton could grow, would assist the industrialization of modern Russia.

The fate of Central Asia next intersected with the United States a century later, when, during the Cold War, American policymakers realized that Moscow was locating its nuclear testing and missile- launch sites in the region, as far away from prying American eyes as possible. This prompted renewed U.S. interest in the region. The United States sought military facilities in Iran and Pakistan to monitor Soviet activities in Central Asia. Many pressing for U.S. support of radical Islamic forces during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan hoped the religious fervor would spread into Soviet Central Asia, as indeed it did. After the fall of the Soviet Union, America’s main objective in the region seemed to be to help the Central Asian states gain sufficient confidence and stability to prevent any resurgence of Russian influence.

But then came September 11, which abruptly brought the United States and Central Asia together much more closely and permanently. One of the world’s richest countries, a state so powerful that its military and economic reach seems limitless, suddenly began to voice greater concern over developments in one of the world’s most remote and powerless regions. Of course Washington’s heightened interest is understandable. If Central Asian countries take the wrong path, it is feared, they may willingly or unwittingly provide sanctuary to the kinds of terrorists that struck the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

Indeed, given America’s new fears and interests, U.S. involvement in Central Asia is likely to last longer than official statements suggest. Although the Bush administration promises a timely end to the military presence there, many believe the United States will remain engaged through an enhanced political and military presence for years to come; after all, staying until the “job is done,” as the administration has promised, means rooting out the conditions that breed terrorism in the first place. And that formidable goal suggests a quasi-permanent U.S. interest in Central Asia.

In becoming the de facto protector and guarantor of the region, the United States has an opportunity to play a constructive role that will further its own interests as well as those of the Central Asian states themselves. To succeed, however, Washington will need a crash course in the realities of this complex and troubled region.

The Lay of the Land

Central Asia is spread over an area roughly a quarter the size of Russia. The largest country, Kazakhstan, is four times as large as Texas; Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are each about the size of California; and the last two, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, are the size of Wisconsin and South Dakota, respectively. Geographically large, the region is also becoming more important demographically. In most of Central Asia, the birthrate is more than 20 per thousand, whereas in Russia it is a mere 9. Central Asia, at roughly 50 million, is thus stabilized or growing in demographic weight as Russia’s population of about 150 million continues to decline.

Economically, the postcommunist era of free markets and globalization has not been kind to the region. According to World Bank studies, Central Asia is now much worse off than it was under communism. All of its five countries have suffered shocking declines in health and education standards, and all—except oil-rich Kazakhstan—have suffered a disastrous decline in gross domestic product. In Tajikistan, the GDP today is only 38 percent of what it was in 1990. Kyrgyzstan, another orphaned republic, now finds its GDP a third lower than in 1990.

Where economic reform has been attempted, moreover, it has caused a high degree of disruption without much tangible payoff, whereas Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have staved off much of the economic disruption suffered by their neighbors by steadfastly refusing to reform. Uzbekistan, for example, has managed through intransigence to hold its GDP at 96 percent of the 1990 level. The likely long-run cost of this decision to protect the Soviet legacy could be ruinous, however. Little has changed in Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan since 1990, and although the result may be less economic disruption in the present, it will also almost certainly mean less growth in the future. Machinery from the Soviet period is steadily wearing out. And old markets lost with the disappearance of the Soviet Union are not being replaced.

Given this unpromising outlook, some see the new American presence as an unexpected ray of hope. The U.S. military has now stationed 3,000 U.S. personnel in Kyrgyzstan and 1,000 in Uzbekistan to operate out of local air bases. The United States provided roughly $580 million in aid to the region in fiscal year 2002, more than doubling its aid level from the preceding year’s $250 million. In addition, Washington has dramatically stepped up its diplomatic involvement by assigning top diplomatic personnel there and sponsoring high- level visits by members of the Cabinet and Congress. It is argued that with this new U.S. commitment, local governments will gain a greater degree of confidence and security and will have the courage to accept the political risks that reform entails. This theory is about to be tested.

But what makes change—or at least a restoration of hope for future change—so crucial is the severity of poverty in the region. More than two-thirds of the Tajik people now live on less than $2 a day. In Kyrgyzstan, nearly half suffer at that level. A full third of Uzbekistan’s population lives below the official poverty line. Some might point out that Russia’s figures are no better, with a third of its own people in poverty. But at least President Vladimir Putin has been able to restore hope in the future of his country, thanks to the economic reforms he has undertaken. Central Asia, on the other hand, has much less cause for optimism.

From Bad to Worse

Against this bleak backdrop, the governments of Central Asia face five fundamental challenges: identity, development, water, borders, and security. All are problems that the United States will also be forced to confront as the now preeminent military power in the region.

Central Asia today is in the process of etching out a new identity, the contours of which are still uncertain. Its peoples accepted Soviet domination only after a bitter resistance that lasted decades. Indeed, some of the same religious forces that so frighten local authorities and the West today trace their roots to the earlier resistance against Soviet power. Furthermore, the wider local population, now freed from compulsory atheistic secularism, is returning to its religious roots. Mosques are springing up. Although often funded by outside benefactors, they fill with local worshippers. Meanwhile, the countries’ rulers, mainly holdovers from Soviet times, are terrified about such developments, which they poorly understand. Their response has been repression, which then drives resurgent political Islam underground, making its true strength harder to gauge.

Western leaders, similarly frightened by the prospect of resurgent radical Islam, originally hoped that the secular Turkish model would replace the Soviet one in Central Asia. Indeed, Ankara was encouraged to make a bid for preeminence in the region. The Western gambit failed miserably, however. Turkey did not have the resources to play such an outsized role, and countries in the region would not accept it. Indeed, far from being a model, Turkey seemed, like the Central Asian states, in need of massive financial support from others.

The core issue in Central Asia today is how the political order can accommodate the rise of Islam. At this point, neither the authorities nor outside powers have an answer or know what this new order will look like. They have already had one chance and failed to explore its possibilities: Tajikistan is the only Islamic country in the world that, after a brutal civil war, established a coalition government with Islamists in December 1997. Unfortunately, the world largely ignored this experiment, the success of which could have had profound implications for the way that the Western world reacts to resurgent political Islam elsewhere. The United States relocated its ambassador to a neighboring country for security reasons, and there was no sustained effort by Western countries to work with the coalition government. Still, nongovernmental groups working in Central Asia report that today Tajikistan is one of the more open countries in the region. The Tajik example could well inform political developments in the region and elsewhere—and should help define Western perceptions of Islam.

Further confounding Central Asia’s political future is its currently stalled economic development. For ten years the West has preached the virtues of the free market to the Central Asians. Western experts have told local leaders that if they undertake the necessary reforms, Western investment will follow. Of course, if more far-reaching reforms had been adopted, the outlook would be better, at least in the longer run. But there is still little prospect of major Western investment in several of the countries. The region is too remote, the market too fragmented, and the future too uncertain. With the exceptions of oil-rich Kazakhstan and gas-rich Turkmenistan, Western investors have shown little interest in Central Asia. There are few resources in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan is one of only two countries in the world that is doubly landlocked. (The other is Liechtenstein.)

Any hope that the blessings of the free market will replace any time soon the subsidies that Moscow once poured into the area is probably ill founded, at least for the smaller countries such as Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan. (Indeed, Kyrgyzstan, which worked so hard to be the first country in the region to join the World Trade Organization, has seen little return from this bold step.) Although Uzbekistan has the largest population among the five states, outside investment is unlikely to increase there either, even with reform, unless the country manages to break out of its unusual geographic isolation.

Meanwhile, the region’s closed borders and inaccessibility also throttle development. More liberal economic policies will not compensate adequately for the limited commercial opportunities that exist under current conditions. Young people in the region face increasingly bleak futures. As a result, they tend to emigrate, either physically or spiritually, and crime and drugs are becoming the preferred sources of livelihood.

Water Shows the Way

There is no magic way out of Central Asia’s morass, but two possibilities offer some hope. One is for some outside power or international institution to attempt to restore the subsidies that Moscow once channeled to the region. This prospect seems highly unlikely, however. The other, more practical, approach would be to find ways to induce states in the region to open their borders to mutually beneficial development and commerce.

Such regional cooperation is essential, for example, to dealing with the region’s very serious water shortage. As poor as Soviet water practices may have been—and they are widely condemned for the damage that they did to water levels in the Aral Sea—the collapse of the Soviet Union made water management in the region even worse. Suddenly, a single system became five.

Soviet planners looked on Central Asia as a single unit and, in a rational manner, accorded low priority to agriculture in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, where land is poor but water is plentiful. Instead, they encouraged agricultural development further downstream, where the reverse is true—the land is good but the water scarce.

Today, the two upstream states, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, find themselves the guardians of water reservoirs crucial to their downstream neighbors. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are therefore asked to maintain a system that benefits others more than themselves, and no one should be surprised that they are reluctant to do so. On their end, the downstream states that have always received water at no cost fail to understand why they should now consider schemes to pay for it.

As the water system that the region inherited falls into disrepair, leakage and evaporation have increased; in response, states now use more water to compensate for unexpected losses. A drought in recent years has compounded the problem. Today, the region consumes 150 percent more water than it should, according to a recent report by the International Crisis Group.

As burgeoning populations push states to bring more and more land under cultivation, their water needs will only grow. Between 1995 and 2000, the states in the region brought seven percent more land under cultivation using irrigation. And soon there will be another claimant for the region’s limited water. Afghanistan has never drawn much water from the common river system that divides that country from the rest of Central Asia. But with peace, the Afghans will surely press for a larger share.

Making understanding and compromise more difficult is the steady deterioration of the Soviet monitoring systems. Countries have begun to question the exact amount of water that their neighbors are using. And with good reason: Turkmenistan, for example, has sharply increased the amount of water that it drains from the Amu Dar’ya, with the result that some provinces of Uzbekistan have not received water in several years. Indeed, the situation between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan resembles in some respects the relationship between Iraq and Kuwait: a powerful neighbor to the north contending that its weaker neighbor to the south is unfairly depriving it of an essential natural resource. Under the encouragement of the United Nations Development Program, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other aid agencies, the countries of the region have opened talks about the water issue. But progress has been slow due to regional mistrust and the uncertain security situation.

Further contributing to an atmosphere of insecurity are a number of border disputes. Territorial arguments among nations have a tendency to lead to war, and in Central Asia, border problems acquire a complexity seldom seen anywhere else. Central Asia was once a borderless region where the map lines drawn by cartographers were largely meaningless; today those lines divide brother from brother. Pieces of one country remain lodged in another.

Under Soviet nationality policy, a minority language group in one republic could associate itself with the majority population of another. Pockets of Tajiks and Uzbeks inside Kyrgyzstan, for example, were thus considered part of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Their geographic separation from the “motherland” made no difference in Soviet times because borders then were only symbolic.

No longer. With independence, impoverished Kyrgyzstan found itself home to seven ethnic enclaves linked to neighboring states: five to Uzbekistan and two to Tajikistan. The largest of these, the Uzbek-populated Sokh, measures 320 square kilometers and is home to more than 40,000 people. Other enclaves, however, are as small as half a town or a handful of acres. Nonetheless, according to the rules of modern sovereignty, they are formally part of other states, boasting those states’ flags, currencies, and legal systems. Indeed, some of these communities follow the time zone of their home country rather than that of the country in which they are located.

These small ethnic outposts have exacerbated the larger problem of developing a common loyalty within the new state entities that emerged out of the shattered Soviet Union. Take Uzbekistan, for example. A large number of Tajiks live in some of the country’s major cities. The central government in Tashkent is eager to create a sense of loyalty toward the new Uzbekistan among all the people of the country. But if Uzbekistan also holds on to Uzbeks living next door in Kyrgyzstan, what message does that send to the Tajiks and others who live in Uzbekistan proper? Do they also have a right to maintain a special relationship with their ethnic homeland?

As if unclear borders were not trouble enough, the new states must also sort out the problem of economic zones located in one republic but owned by another. Uzbekistan, for example, has energy leases in neighboring countries that were signed during the Soviet period. The countries that now hold the properties under lease feel that Tashkent should pay them a higher rent for these leases. Tashkent, not surprisingly, feels otherwise.

To the credit of the new authorities in Central Asia, they have not allowed strains over border disputes to reach the point of open conflict. True, Uzbekistan, which has the only significant military force in the region, has occasionally brought military pressure to bear against its neighbors, but no sustained engagement has taken place. Nonetheless, the tinder is on the ground. At the beginning of January of this year, violence erupted in one of the Tajik enclaves in Kyrgyzstan when Tajiks destroyed a Kyrgyz border crossing and the Kyrgyz retaliated against a Tajik post. The United States, as the region’s guarantor, must be wary of letting such sparks fly. If a border dispute were to increase tensions in the future—as such disputes have done in the past—the United States must restrain Uzbekistan, the strongest power in the region, and not look the other way.

Security in the region is complicated by still another factor: the unrest flowing out of Afghanistan. Policymakers in Washington might have feared Moscow’s return, but leaders in Central Asia were more concerned with the arrival of the Taliban. Assuming the Western commitment to solving the Afghan problem remains firm and begins to bear fruit—as yet an uncertain assumption—the security of Central Asia could dramatically improve. Such progress would remove some of the arguments advanced against greater pluralism, more open borders, and easier trade regimes. At that point, however, the region will face a new security challenge, this time involving several major powers.

If, as seems likely, U.S. forces remain in the region for the foreseeable future, it is almost inevitable that tensions among the larger powers over this presence will begin to grow. A rift is already evident in the deep resentment that Moscow’s decision to bless the American presence in Central Asia has generated within the Russian military. But the more serious concern is going to come from China. From Beijing’s perspective, the entrenchment of an American military presence in Central Asia could appear a form of encirclement. The United States already has bases in Japan and South Korea and maintains an implicit security relationship with Taiwan. A growing U.S. military presence in Central Asia could look to Beijing like a new threat from the east. If tensions over Taiwan were to grow, Chinese suspicions over the real American objectives in Central Asia would mount.

It is therefore important that Washington work with Moscow and Beijing to exclude this region from great-power politics. The three major powers should strike a clear understanding about what kind of military presence the United States will maintain in the region. Washington should make the U.S. presence there more transparent as well as look for ways to work with the Russian and Chinese militaries to address some of the other local security threats.

Taming the Tiger

Central Asia, an area long on the farthest margins of U.S. interest, is now at the center of Washington’s concerns. The United States has established a military presence in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan and has sharply increased aid and diplomatic involvement. Yet it could still end up riding a tiger. The governments of the region are all authoritarian and increasingly estranged from their own populations. Washington thus runs the risk that it will be perceived as favoring these governments and an unsatisfactory status quo. As currents below the surface carry these societies closer and closer to their earlier Islamic identities, the United States may find itself in the position of appearing to oppose the wishes of the majority of the populations.

There is no easy way out of this quagmire. The principal Islamist movements in the region advocate policies that seem either otherworldly, unacceptable, or troubling: otherworldly, when the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Hizbut-Tahrir (HT) call for the unification of the entire Islamic world community under a restored Caliphate; unacceptable, when the IMU seeks the violent overthrow of the current government in Tashkent; and troubling, because the HT, although it advocates the peaceful seizure of power, holds extremely conservative views about the role of women in society, is virulently anti-Israel, and has no real program to solve social or other governmental problems.

The United States thus faces enormous challenges and must boldly rethink the way to engage this region. More precisely, the United States should consider two strategies: promoting a larger vision of regionalism and exploring possible ways to reconcile democracy and Islam. Here, a look back at history provides some insight. Americans like to think that it was their generosity under the Marshall Plan alone that enabled the Europeans to stand on their feet after World War II. Yet 80 percent of the capital invested in the decisive postwar years was European, not American. Washington’s real contribution was in insisting that it would not provide aid unless Europeans agreed to work together.

The United States and other donors should follow a similar approach in Central Asia. Just as Western Europeans had, in the end, largely to fund themselves, so will Central Asians. But Western aid could again be critical at the margin and, if coordinated, could push the states to work with one another in a regional context. Up to this point, Western aid has been parceled out among the various claimants, which denies the donors regional leverage. And among the five states themselves, most of the efforts at regional cooperation have been more talk than reality.

For a wider regional effort to succeed, the outside world will need to stop viewing Central Asia through a colonialist lens. Because of the struggle between tsarist Russia and imperial Britain, Central Asia was cut off for nearly 150 years from its cultural neighbors to the south. Today Central Asia should rightly be seen as a region that reaches beyond the five states of the former Soviet Union to include neighboring Afghanistan, Iran, and perhaps even Pakistan. There will be objections to such a proposal. U.S. policymakers are reluctant to engage Iran without further reform there. As long as that hesitation remains, a wider regional approach could start with the five Central Asian states and Afghanistan, with Iran joining only when ready. Turkey obviously has a role to play in such an effort, since several of the states in the region have strong linguistic ties to it, but Ankara these days is more interested in joining the European Union than in being seen as part of Central Asia. Pakistan, which offers another outlet to the sea, might have the same kind of association as Turkey—an interested friend and economic partner.

If the United States begins to view the problems of the area from a wider regional perspective and, starting with the five Central Asian states and Afghanistan, encourages states to work together, they may all be able to make more progress in resolving the many pressing border and water issues they face. Furthermore, in the broader regional context, the market is larger, the trade roots more historically based, and the pool of outside money to gain leverage more considerable.

With Genghis Khan and Tamerlane at the core of local mythology, Central Asia appears to offer little fertile ground for democracy. The trademarks of the region are intrigue and military mastery, not compromise and concessions, and decades of Soviet rule further entrenched such authoritarian traditions. Yet it would be wrong to condemn the region to a nondemocratic dungeon, not least because the majority of its people want to join the modern world. Moreover, the region already boasts individuals who speak out for greater tolerance, more freedom, and the rule of law, and they should be encouraged.

Unfortunately, the ground is not prepared for any local reformers to reach positions of power in the foreseeable future. Work must be done to reconcile Islam and democracy, and Western countries must make this goal a priority if they hope to co-exist with the political forces likely to dominate the region. Here again the West could take a page from its past. In the postwar period, Western governments attempted to reconcile democracy and communism by enabling communists to enter the system at the local level while barring them, at least for a probationary period, from participation in national government. The entry of communist candidates into office at the local level introduced them to the complexities of governing a modern political system. It also confirmed in the minds of the voters that the communists had no magic answers to the problems of governance.

In Central Asia, the problem is complex: because the IMU advocates violence to achieve its ends, it is difficult to feel comfortable endorsing its participation in the political system. In contrast, the HT, despite some objectionable features of its platform, does propose to reach power peacefully. The West should urge the region’s leaders to open local government to electoral challenge and to allow all parties seeking peaceful change to take part. Perhaps it will turn out that more radical Islamists enjoy little support. Even if they do garner electoral support, however, Islamic forces may gradually develop a stake in the system, so that when they do finally enter national government, it will constitute an act of inclusion, not revolution.

In all these efforts, Washington must show patience. During the Cold War, the United States developed long-run policies that took years to bear fruit. Washington subsidized the study of the Russian and Chinese languages, for example; it encouraged exchanges, supported the development of scholarly centers for the study of communist societies, and was prepared militarily but kept its powder dry. It was cautious in the use of force and developed programs to reach out to local elites.

The time has come to adopt a similar approach toward Islam, particularly in Central Asia. Needed are special programs to support American students in the study of local languages. Western countries should reach out not only to secular forces with which they are comfortable but also to leaders who are likely to rise to positions of influence in the religious parties. Meanwhile, U.S. assistance programs need to avoid the deadening hand of the region’s unreformed governments and reach directly into local communities.

Such an approach might enable the United States to manage its engagement in Central Asia more happily than it has managed its presence in many other parts of the Muslim world. It may well permit the United States to accomplish through cooperation and diplomacy what it will find difficult to achieve by force. Finally, it might provide lessons for reconciling the West and Islam more generally, one of the critical issues of the age. Now is the time and Central Asia is the place for the United States to develop a set of policies appropriate to the new challenges of the post-September 11 world.